Bell's Opera House. (HCP file photo)
Bell's Opera House. (HCP file photo)
(Note: Hillsboro Mayor Drew Hastings purchased the historic Bell's Opera House in 2006 and has been working on renovating the landmark structure for the past few years. According to the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission, the project received a capital appropriation of $50,000 from the 127th General Assembly in Am. Sub. H.B. 562 to assist with exterior stabilization work. Highland County historian Bob Patton shares some history of the building in this week's column.)

For many years, the city of Hillsboro had sorely needed an opera house or a public auditorium of some type. Everybody knew that. Many people in and around Hillsboro enjoyed dramatic productions performed by theatrical groups who barnstormed around the country putting on well-attended shows wherever they could locate a suitable building with a stage and enough comfortable seating to accommodate 150 or more people.

Some preferred musicals. There was no shortage of musicians – just a shortage of places for them to perform.

And, of course, there were the area high school commencements, musicals and plays, which were always very well attended. The schools, at that time, had insufficient facilities to hold these activities.

Often, they were held in the old Presbyterian Church, on East Main Street, often known as the “Crusade Church,” because it was the headquarters of the temperance crusade of 1873-74.

It offered a platform, or stage, and a fair amount of seating, and the members of the church had been very accommodating in allowing various groups to use the church when it didn’t conflict with services and church programs. The church’s activities always took priority, however, as would be expected.

But the church was scheduled for demolition. A magnificent new edifice was to be erected on the same site. That would, no doubt take a couple of years, if not longer.

No, the community needed to proceed with the building of a new opera house as rapidly as possible.

As had been pointed out, though, an opera house would cost serious money – probably $30,000 or even more. That would be like asking the city of Hillsboro to put up a new facility costing a million and a half dollars, today. And, the federal grants and corporate gifts that are available, today, were pretty much unheard of in 1895.

Enter C.S. Bell.

Mr. Bell, a highly successful Hillsboro manufacturer and philanthropist, had advocated the erection of an opera house in Hillsboro for several years. He was enough of a businessman; however, to know that that such a project could be a losing proposition from a strictly financial point of view. He was willing to sacrifice to some extent, for the good of the people of Hillsboro. But, there was a limit.

A front page article in the Hillsborough Gazette, dated March 22, 1895, set forth the plan that C.S. Bell had committed to. If the people of Hillsboro were willing to donate $3,000 toward the cost of the lot and the building (roughly 10 percent), he would put up the remainder of the cost. It was his belief that the people who clamored for such a building should be willing to make at least a small sacrifice to make it a reality.

This was a most generous offer. Most area people believed that the $3,000 could be raised in a week, perhaps even less than a week.

Bell had already taken an option on the Smith lot on South High Street, behind Walker and Santee’s store, then occupied by a row of small buildings, most of which were eyesores. This was known as Rats' Row.

As soon as the article made the plan public, a meeting was held at the Farmers & Traders Bank and the issue was thoroughly discussed. Mr. Bell was present and explained his plan to those in attendance. At a meeting the following evening, committees were appointed to canvass the town for subscriptions to the $3,000 fund. (Keep in mind that $3,000 in 1895 was equivalent to about $70,000 in today’s money.)

When the committees met on Monday, the total subscriptions had already reached about $2,000, in less than three full days. The work was continued on Tuesday and nearly the entire amount was raised by the end of the day.

Bell was satisfied that the goal would be easily reached, and he proposed to go ahead with his ambitious plan.  

Clearing for the construction would begin in a few days, as soon as plans could be drawn. Since they did not have to get two dozen permits costing half of the $30,000, and wait for 35 or 40 inspections, the goal was to have the building completed by Thanksgiving.

Workmen started tearing down the old shanties on Thursday, April 4, 1895.

According to Elsie Johnson Ayres ("Hills of Highland," 1971), 1895 was a noteworthy year for Hillsboro.  

Aside from the construction of the opera house, the old Presbyterian Church was razed and the cornerstone for the new church, which still stands on the site today, was laid. The trustees took possession of the new waterworks plant, and the Columbus and Maysville Railroad suspended operation, only to resume again 17 days later.

Also, the new jail was completed May 29 and the Farmers & Merchants Bank opened at Lynchburg.

Finally, there was great excitement in the southern end of the county when oil was reportedly discovered at Belfast.

Incidentally, in reference to the new jail, Jerry Foley did the beautiful masonry work on the jail. When the job was completed, Foley celebrated somewhat to excess. He was picked up by the local gendarmes and had the distinct honor of being the very first inmate of the brand new jail. Foley rests, today, in the Catholic Cemetery off North High Street.

When the bids for construction of the building, exclusive of iron work, lighting and heating were opened. Bohannon & Co., of Findlay, Ohio had the winning bid, just under $15,000. Saunders & Esswein, of Columbus, got the contract for heating apparatus, while G.W. Kirk, of Hillsboro got the plumbing contract.

The stage would be 30’ by 25.’ The drop curtain would be one of the finest in the state. The building would be “complete in every detail and lacking none of the essentials of modern theatrical construction.”

The manager would be Mr. Frank Ayres.

On Wednesday, Nov. 20 the opera house formally opened with a large audience and a splendid play, with appropriate dedicatory exercises. It was a gala night in Hillsboro.

The play was the Comedy-Drama, “Friends,” by Edward Milton Royle. It was a strong play, which “had won a high name for its author.” It is fair to say that the performance was reviewed very favorably by practically everybody.

Dignitaries from Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland, Middletown, Chillicothe, Maysville, Wilmington, Washington Court House and many other towns in the area were in the large audience. All were highly impressed with the elegant facility.

For the next 35 years or so, hundreds of plays, musicals, operettas and other types of entertainment were held in the Opera House. For many years, Hillsboro High School held their graduation exercises there, as did several of the county schools.

Joe Rockhold once told me that a production of "Ben-Hur," General Lew Wallace’s best-selling novel, was held in the Opera House shortly after 1900. Several live horses were used in the play. The Opera House was, of course, on the second floor. The horses were hoisted up and brought in through a sliding door. (Hopefully, several scoop shovels were available.)

"Ben-Hur" was published by Harper and Brothers on Nov. 12, 1880. The novel was the result of seven years of research and writing, most of which was carried out underneath a beech tree near Lew Wallace's residence in Crawfordsville, Indiana.

The novel grew in such popularity during Wallace's lifetime that it was adapted into a stage play in 1899. That dramatization was followed by motion picture productions in 1907, 1925, and 1959. Since the last film, "Ben-Hur" has been adapted into several cartoons and a musical.

Several American towns and a life insurance company have been named after "Ben-Hur."

By 1915, a series of events began that eventually made the Opera House obsolete. First, the automobile had come along, making travel easier and faster. Some of the earliest silent movies were shown at the Opera House shortly after the turn of the century. Then came World War I, which was a major distraction.  

In 1923, equipment was installed and the Opera House became a theater, equipped with a modern Western Electric sound system. The opening of the Orpheum Theater in Hillsboro, followed by the Palace and the Forum made the motion picture more readily available in the city.

A little later, in 1936, a brand new high school was constructed on West Main Street. This elaborate building included a spacious auditorium and a gymnasium, making it no longer necessary to hold plays, graduation exercises and musical performances in the Opera House. The Colony Theater followed just a year or two later. It was capable of seating nearly 1,000.

Little by little, Bell’s Opera House faded into obscurity. It was finally closed in the 1930s. Since it was on the second floor, there began to be concerns about fire escape availability. There were fire escapes, but how long would it take to vacate the building should a fire break out during a production?

It finally ceased to be used entirely, and the theater seats were removed. Some of them were used in the Marshall gymnasium. Some were used in other places. All have disappeared, now.

The old Opera House had fallen into disrepair over many years of standing unused. In 2010 and 2011, a rather extensive renovation was done, which spruced up the old theater considerably.

Bob Patton is a Highland County historian and a columnist for The Highland County Press.